What Is Catnip and Why Do Cats Love It? – A Complete Guide.


Cats and catnip go together like peanut butter and jelly. Most of us have heard how irresistible this stuff is to cats and many of us have witnessed their behavior when presented with a toy laced with it. But do you actually know what catnip is and why it has such an intoxicating effect on cats? Can you answer the following questions?

  • What is catnip?
  • Why do cats love catnip so much?
  • What does catnip do to cats?
  • Can cats eat catnip?
  • Is catnip a drug?
  • Is catnip safe?
  • Can cats become addicted to catnip?
  • Can I grow catnip?

We answer these queries and many more below. So to find out absolutely everything you need to know about catnip … read on.

What is catnip?

Catnip (Latin name Nepeta Cataria) is a perennial herb from the mint plant family that is extremely attractive to cats. It has a sturdy, hairy stem and heart-shaped leaves which both contain an essential oil called nepetalactone – the ‘magic’ ingredient. Once native to Africa, Europe, and Asia, it can now be found all over North America, too. It is a hardy plant with white to purple flowers.

Catnip

Why do cats love catnip?

We say cats love catnip because of the way they spontaneously react in a frenzied manner when they are given something that contains it. The behavior we see is induced by the nepetalactone and is basically equivalent to the cat experiencing an involuntary high. The cat isn’t actually thinking, “I love catnip!” but it certainly acts as if it does.

What does catnip actually do to cats?

After sniffing catnip a cat instantly perks up. Its pupils dilate until you can hardly see the color of its irises. It might drool, roll wildly on the floor clutching the catnip impregnated item and generally act like a crazy thing. It may also rub its face against the toy. The catnip effect usually wears off after about 10 minutes.

What does catnip smell like?

To us humans, catnip has a mild minty smell. To a cat, it smells like something that makes it feel like behaving a little crazy 🙂

What actually happens when a cat sniffs catnip?

Cat after catnip

When a cat smells catnip, a chemical is absorbed into their nasal passages to bind with receptors within the cat’s nose. Sensory neurons leading to the brain are stimulated and a chemical reaction is triggered which has a euphoric effect. Basically, the cat experiences an immediate and overwhelming sense of happiness. If you’ve never tried catnip on your cat then you must try this (click the link to read reviews on Amazon).

Is catnip similar to a cat pheromone?

A pheromone is a chemical signal used for communication within a species. The reaction of a female cat to catnip is often similar to how she behaves when in heat and a male cat can become almost aggressive, especially if there are two males cats in the household. So, in many ways, catnip can invoke an emotional response similar to that caused by natural cat pheromones.

Can cats eat catnip?

Catnip doesn’t do any harm. If a cat eats a small amount of catnip, it may have a sedative effect as opposed to the high that occurs when it sniffs it. If a cat eats too much catnip, at worst it, will vomit it back up and perhaps experience diarrhea a little later.

Is catnip really safe for cats?

I have owned cats all my life and all of them have enjoyed catnip (smelling it and chewing it) with no adverse reactions. I have never known anyone to say a cat has suffered from any ill effects from it. It is widely accepted that there is nothing in catnip that can harm a cat. If your cat has any known health conditions such as asthma, have a chat with your vet before giving catnip to your cat.

Is catnip good or bad for cats?

It’s neither really. Catnip doesn’t contain any ingredients that are essential for good health in cats. And it doesn’t contain anything that can cause them any harm. I suppose if you have a lazy cat and can use catnip every now and then to get make it more active then this could be construed as a health benefit.

Cat on back with catnip mouse

Is catnip a drug for cats?

Catnip is often thought of as a recreational drug for cats. It has been compared to hallucinogens but there is no way of knowing if a cat sees imaginary things when playing with catnip toys. A cat with a catnip toy only ever seems engrossed in that toy and doesn’t behave as if it can see other things in the room. Catnip is not a drug it is just a herb.

Can cats become addicted to catnip?

Cats do not become addicted to catnip. No evidence has ever come to light that shows it is habit-forming.

Can cats overdose on catnip?

It’s hard to define an overdose of catnip. If a cat eats more than they can handle they generally vomit. Then you could technically say your cat has exceeded its catnip limit, but no harm is done.

How long does a catnip high last?

When you give a cat a catnip toy it will usually play with it like crazy for 10 to 15 minutes, after this, the effect wears off (or the cat wears itself out!) It will usually wander off and do something else once it’s had enough.

How often should cats play with catnip?

If cats are exposed to catnip too often, they may stop responding to it altogether. Some people give it to their cats every now and then, some once a week. Any more than this may reduce your cat’s reaction to catnip altogether. It’s a good idea to remove any catnip toys after play and seal them away until the next session. If you leave them lying about the house, again, your cat may become immune to the effect.

Cat with catnip mouse

Are all cats susceptible to catnip?

Kittens don’t respond to catnip until they are over 8 weeks old and usually at around 6 months, whenever they reach sexual maturity. About 30% of cats never have a reaction to catnip and this is thought to be hereditary. So if your cat isn’t fussed about catnip, it could be because of its age or its genes!

Do all cats react to catnip in the same way?

Most cats just react with a sudden burst of energy and become extremely focused on the catnip object. You don’t need to interact, it will carry this on alone, quite happily. Occasionally, a cat may just become unusually aggressive due to the stimulation. If you don’t like the way your cat behaves on catnip, simply remove the source and let the effect wear off – and then you may decide not to give it to it again.

Should we really give cats catnip?

Catnip can’t do a cat any harm and there are some very good reasons for using it. If your cat scratches things you don’t want it to, spraying scratching posts with catnip can help to train your cat to scratch those instead. If you have a lethargic cat that’s perhaps getting a little overweight then catnip toys can incite it into exercising once a day.

Are there different types of catnip?

The best catnip is made from the leaves and flowers of the plant, not the stems. So if you buy it, check the information on the packaging. I would also look for an organic brand too to be sure that it contains no pesticides.

How do I grow catnip?

Cat asleep in catnip

Catnip is relatively easy to grow from seeds. Think carefully about where you place it. Your cat will probably attempt to dig it up if it is somewhere accessible indoors and you’ll attract every cat in the neighborhood to your yard if you plant it outside!

To grow catnip you will need:

  • Catnip seeds
  • Well-draining soil
  • A planter

The seeds grow better if you freeze them overnight and then soak them in water for 24 hours. This damages the seed coat and helps them to germinate more successfully. For indoor or winter planting, place the seeds in pots and wait for them to sprout. They can only be planted directly into the ground outside during spring, once any possibility of frost has passed.

Expect to see the seeds sprouting after 5 to 10 days. Once the plants are 2 to 5 inches tall, ideally, they should be thinned out to about 12 to 18 inches apart. This can be difficult to achieve indoors but do your best. If indoors, place your little plants in a sunny area and drench them with water and allow the soil to become almost dry before drenching again. If outdoors, rain should do the trick but water them lightly if it’s unseasonably dry.

Don’t fertilize your catnip plants as this is thought to reduce its potency. And be aware that it can be quite invasive, so remove the flowers before they turn to seed to prevent unwanted spreading.

Red Maine Coon with catnip

What do I do with catnip once it’s grown?

After about 3 to 4 months you can begin to harvest the leaves to make your cat some catnip. The effect is strongest when the plant is flowering, in mid to late summer. Cats do like catnip leaves straight from the plant but the best way to use it in toys is by drying it first. The easiest way to do this is to hang bunches of stems, with the leaves and flowers still attached, in a dry, dark, space for as long as it takes for the leaves to feel completely dry. You can speed up the process by placing just the leaves and flowers in a very low oven until they feel bone dry.

Once dry, crumble up just the leaves and flowers and discard any stems. Store it in sealed bags and it will last for a few months. You can also freeze it.

How do I make catnip toys?

There are several ways to make catnip toys. If you’re good at sewing you can make felt pillows or mice and fill them with organic cotton stuffing (or something similar) plus a teaspoon of catnip. You can buy an excellent ready-made catnip here. If you don’t like sewing, you can use an old sock (without holes!) and stuff it in the same way as a toy then securely tie the top into a knot. You also can sprinkle a little into cardboard scratching toys. Here’s an extremely popular one that all cats seem to love.

How do I make catnip spray?

Catnip spray is a great way to attract cats to a scratching post. It’s easy to make as follows:

  • Boil a cup of water in a saucepan then turn off the heat.
  • add half a cup of dried catnip, stir and leave it to steep as you would tea leaves in a pot.
  • When it is cool, strain the catnip out and decant the liquid into a spray bottle.
  • Spray the items you want your cat to be attracted to.
  • Fetch your cat and, hopefully, it will enjoy your efforts!

By making a small amount like this you don’t waste catnip. Store any leftovers in the fridge in an airtight container and it will last for a few days. Here’s a very popular brand you can buy to try if you aren’t growing your own catnip.

Is catnip the same as catmint?

There are five main varieties of catnip:

  • Nepeta Cataria (true catnip) – This is the only one that cats really love. It produces white to purple flowers and grows up to 3 feet high.
  • Nepeta Mussinii (Persian catmint) – This one has lavender flowers and reaches a height of 15 inches.
  • Nepeta Parnassica (Greek catnip) – This features pale pink blooms and grows to about 18 inches in height.
  • Nepeta Camphorata (Camphor catnip ) – Grows white flowers with purple dots, and reaches about 18 inches in height.
  • Nepeta Citriodora (Lemon catnip) – Has white and purple blooms, and can grow up to 3 feet tall.

Conclusion

Catnip is safe for any cat but only about 70% have an attraction to it. It’s easy to grow and dry but make sure you grow the correct variety –
Nepeta Cataria. If you grow it in your yard, expect to attract every cat for miles around. Your cat may start charging an entrance fee or acting like a drug baron!

Finally, if you’d like a laugh – do check out the 15 things that your cat absolutely hates about you!

cat nip pin

Jane

I'm Jane Pettitt, co-owner of Pets Knowledge Base with my husband, Matt. I have a grand total of 50 years’ experience as a pet owner. It all started with a guinea pig called Percy when I was 5 years old and since then I’ve lived with two more guinea pigs, a hamster, mice, a rabbit, a tortoise, a dog and 11 cats. I’ve learned so much about pet care during this time and many of my articles are based on my personal experiences and those of my family and friends .

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